On paper the Bartletts are a model family. Living the suburban idyll in their sprawling Long Island home they are about to upgrade to the best house in the neighbourhood – the jewel in the crown of Father Mickey’s real estate empire. A cookie cutter life that could be lifted straight off plan. Their ascent from modest apartment in Queens to American Dreaming in the ‘burbs comes courtesy of Mickey’s determination that his family to have it all. His wife Brenda disagrees: “more money more problems!” and here the story of Lymelife begins…
Scott Bartlett’s Mum and Dad are on the verge of divorce, his brother is about to ship off to war and the girl-next-door wants a boy with a car – a kid with a Death Star just isn’t going to cut it. The reality of teenaged life in the tick-infested, incestuous society of upwardly mobile Long Island sucks. Adrianna Bragg doesn’t have things much better, she can appreciate Scott’s problems but she has enough on her plate already. Her Father is riddled with Lyme disease and quietly losing his health and his mind as fast as his wife is losing her morals. The bittersweet symphony of family secrets plays out as the pair fall in love and their parents fall apart.
Lymelife is the accomplished directorial (feature) debut of writer/director Derick Martini and was co-written with his brother Steven. The pair came of age in the suburbs of ‘90s New York State and took their inspiration from the damage ‘70s avarice had done to the families they knew. Basing the story on real events, and people, they acknowledge its strongly autobiographical tone. Derick Martini describes his childhood as akin to “growing up in the ruins of Rome”. That perspective and level of personalisation imbues Lymelife with an intimacy bordering on intrusion into the character’s lives. This is a story with bite, unafraid to expose the razor sharp tips of the white picket fence. The fraternal connection continues with the inspired casting of Rory and Kieran Culkin as Scott and Jim Bartlett. Having matured in a two decade marinade of family dysfunction, the two are uniquely qualified to capture the complexities and cruelty of family life demanded here.
The ensemble cast in fact are uniformly strong. Alec Baldwin as Mickey displays his horrible puff-chested charisma to great effect and Cynthia Nixon convinces as Adrianna’s flirtatious Mother. Initially, diseased Timothy Hutton and hysterical Brenda Bartlett (Jill Hennessy) appear only to offer notes of melodrama and sorrow. In truth it is through their eyes that we find the story’s depth. It is a testament to the quality of both the material and the actors that a woman who seems determined to be unhappy becomes the heroine of the piece and a man who has little to say ultimately tells us the most. Timothy Hutton’s Charlie Bragg is an exemplary performance, allowing as much to be said in his silences as in his searing speech – his struggle with the ravages of Lyme disease and betrayal strikes a perfect balance between comedy and tragedy. There is much to be admired here.
Told primarily from his adolescent perspective, we peer over Scott’s scrawny shoulder as he casts aside Han Solo to open his heart to first love and his eyes to the truth about his own family. Even as things fall apart Lymelife remembers, and recounts with Phillip Larkin frankness, how often our first heartbreak comes at the hands of a parent.
I adored the nostalgia of Lymelife – its Kodak Instamatic countenance and evocative soundtrack – I truly hope it will get the audience it deserves. Comparisons to American Beauty and The Ice Storm are inevitable but ultimately irrelevant. See this wry and wonderful film for its own merits – I am confident you won’t regret it.
Lymelife is released in the UK on 2nd July